I am teaching elementary education majors this semester. We started discussing tessellations, and I decided two things:

  1. The walls of our classroom are boring.
  2. My students need a creative outlet.

I decided to ask the students to create a tessellation. Here were the guidelines:

  1. Create a tessellation.
  2. If you do it, you will get full credit. If you don’t, you won’t get any credit.
  3. We will decorate the classroom with your assignments (unless you opt out).

I wanted to give my students maximum flexibility. They were, frankly, dumbfounded. I was barraged with five minutes of questions. “How big should we make it?” “Can we use color?” “Do we have to draw it, or should we do it on a computer?” “Does it have to be a tessellation of an animal?”

I think that these were all very reasonable questions given our education system—I find that there is not a lot of room for creativity in school (note: the last studio art class I took was in middle school; maybe art classes got better since then). My students were looking for a “catch”— I must have some sort of restriction up my sleeve. I find this a shame. Educators speak about the importance of nurturing creative students, yet we almost always stifle creativity with too many directives. “All assignments must be double-spaced.” “Compare Great Expectations to The Joy Luck Club.” “Do questions 1,3, and 7 from the textbook.”

I am guilty of this, too, but I am trying. For instance, I try to let students choose which questions they want to do on a homework assignment: “Do three of the following five questions” (note: I have not been good at doing this this semester). I hope to incorporate more room for creativity in each of my classes. These will likely be small things at the beginning, such as the tessellation assignment, but I think it is better than doing nothing.

By the time I finished answering their questions, my elementary educations majors seemed to be buzzing about the project; there was almost a tangible excitement in the room.


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